Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.
Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.
He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.
I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)
I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.
I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.
Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.
Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?
What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?
Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:7-10
Years ago, when I was learning how to be a teacher, some of my motivations were quite idealistic: I want to change the hearts and minds of youth, and therefore change the world!!
Now, when I think back to the workings of my mind in those days, I almost want to scold my younger self, “get a grip!”
By no means were my motivations bad, but it was my ego that got me into trouble. Did I really think that I could change people? Of course I did–and I suppose most of us do, at some point in our lives. Maybe this thought is buzzing in the background of our interactions most of the time, without us realizing it. If so, we may feel like we’ve failed if we can’t convince others of our opinions, can’t get them to switch their views or can’t inspire them to join the cause about which we are super passionate.
When did this all change for me? When did I stop thinking I was supposed to change others? I suppose it started when I began to see myself more as a minister than a teacher, and when I began to understand that my role is to lovingly companion people and meet them wherever they are. I share God’s love, myself, my knowledge and experiences, but I hope to always provide the freedom for people to make up their own minds.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs./ We are prophets of a future not our own
I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!
But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe. Do I just listen and let them speak, even if they are voicing something that is morally wrong–like a racist or classist idea?!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And, I have been grappling with these questions while in conversation with others. At a recent Theology on Tap event here, I sat around a table with about a dozen people eating pizza and burgers and having a deep and vulnerable conversation centered on the topic, “How to get along with people different than you.” We read an excerpt of a chapter of a book by Margaret Wheatley “Willing to be Disturbed,” which I highly recommend.
A few weeks prior, when I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I attended an excellent panel discussion called, “Writing about politics in an age of rancor.” Most of the panelists talked about the importance of listening, of practicing good interview skills. One speaker said that we’ve lost the art of persuasion in our culture. Everyone emphasized the importance of empathy.
Plus, I have been a bit fascinated by a radio program that I recently caught on my way to mass at the local parish. This part of the conversation, in particular, piqued my interest:
RAZ: You know, I find myself having, like, really serious conversations with friends about things we disagree on, and it can get pretty heated.
RAZ: And I try to employ a lot of these rules. But what do you do when your core values are just totally misaligned with the person that you’re talking with – like, to such an extent that the things they believe just offend you to your core? Do you still engage?
HEADLEE: I do. And I can give you an example of this. So I am a mixed-race person. The last time my family lived in Georgia, we were owned. And I think most people would understand my feelings on the Confederate battle flag. But I have a number of friends that absolutely think that is about heritage, and it’s not about hate, et cetera, et cetera.
And I was having one of these discussions with someone earlier, and he started to say to me, well, I’m not going to talk about this with you because I know where you stand. And I said, you know what? That actually frees us up. Just tell me what you think because here’s the thing. Our views are opposed on this, but I am interested in your perspective, why this is so important to you. And if I can just start from the outset and allay those expectations that someone’s going to change my mind, sometimes it just sort of relieves that pressure. Then it just becomes about hearing someone’s perspective.
RAZ: So you wouldn’t respond to his argument. You would just listen to what he said.
HEADLEE: I might. I might, but I start by just listening and asking questions, but because he likes me and respects me, usually he leaves an opening for me to express my feelings, and I do honestly without condemnation. But, you know, it’s hard for people to open up like this. It’s hard. That makes you vulnerable.
Here is the entire TED Talk about how to have better conversations, about how to interview and listen:
As a Christian who is aiming every day to keep united with the power of the resurrected Christ, I am trying to keep all this in mind as I minister, listen and learn: listening and being vulnerable with others helps build community, and build relationships. When both parties are compassionately curious about one another, when our thoughts and beliefs can be clarified, then we can be in communion. We grow closer together when we share our wounds, when we create spaces of true hospitality where bread of all sorts can be broken and shared.
And somehow, along the way, by the grace of God, we all end up changed.
A few weeks ago I saw my first “Back to School” flier of the season. In the past several years, such fliers stirred up emotions of stress and panic for me, along with excitement. As a teacher, back to school sales served as glaring reminders that I had a lot to do.
This time, the sighting of a back to school flier surfaced a whole new set of emotions: gratitude and relief. I felt grateful for my time as a teacher, and relieved by the reminder that this year there is no “back to school” for me.
To my surprise, in the past year I have felt called to move on to a new ministry and not…
Yesterday I finished packing up my classroom. A somber weight pressed upon my shoulders as I cleaned out my desk, dusted shelves and put books and picture frames in boxes.
In the silence I prayed in gratitude for the room that has held so much life and energy for me during the past four years. I smiled as I thought of the love, learning, laughter, singing, dancing, and playful energy that the four walls had held. I sighed with relief to know that I will no longer have endless piles of papers to grade or have to deal with the pressure of an academic calendar. Sadness colored the blank walls with the intensity of letting-go.
I am not sure if I’ll ever teach in a classroom again. I am not sure what the future holds. I don’t know what God has in store for me.
I know some of the general facts, of course. This fall I will begin serving as a program and retreat presenter at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin. I’ll live with some sisters from my congregation in the Spirituality Center’s lodge on Trout Lake and have the opportunity to connect with God alive in creation each and every day. I’ll continue writing and studying, hoping to complete the master’s degree I have been working on and increase my creative writing endeavors.
And, I know I’ll continue to live my life as an FSPA and that I’ll offer myself for the service of God and God’s people. I know I’ll remain connected to my family and friends. And, I believe God will continue to guide me and show me the way.
I am not afraid of the future. I am encouraged by the past. I am challenged to trust in the Mystery and remain faithful to the Truth of Love.
God’s invitation to change ministries and move on came to me like a whisper, like a gentle nudge felt both in the exterior of community life and in the solid feelings of my body and heart. Mid-Lent I was at a meeting with some of my sisters, a discernment circle. I told the other sisters that I thought I’d make a change in ministry within a couple years and read aloud a list of the things I really hoped for in wherever God called me to next: more time in nature and for writing, ministry in an area of high need, service to the poor and marginalized, a strong community life. I had all sorts of ideas about how this could look, but hadn’t even thought about moving further north and into a largely rural area.
Our God is totally a God of surprises though, and once dreams are announced to a loving community one can let go and let the Spirit show the way. After I shared my general dream in that discernment circle a couple of sisters from Marywood spoke about the needs in the Superior diocese. As they spoke, one of the FSPA I am the closest to shot me a “Are-you-hearing-this?” look that I tried to ignore. Within days, more occurrences served as glaring road signs directing me to let go of the timeline I’d created and accept that it was actually the best time for me to move onward. When I prayed about what might happen, I heard encouragement to ask the sisters at Marywood about possibilities as soon as I could. A deep peace warmed my gut and my thoughts were immediately reframed. Before I could completely catch on, the Spirit blew through and stirred up my entire life.
When things shifted for me, I was in the midst of teaching my students about the epistles of the New Testament. I spoke to my students about St. Paul’s travels and itinerant, missionary life. I described how he went into some cities–such as Corinth, Phillipi, Ephesus, and Thessalonica–for no more than a couple years and established a strong Christian community centered on Love and service in a very relational way. He would preach in synagogues and minister and offer a loving presence straight out of the store where he mended tents and in the homes of those who hosted him. He was effective as a minister because he was excellent as a communicator and relationship builder. He was a master of maintaining relationships once he transitioned onward.
I am challenged by St. Paul’s witness in the early Church and encouraged to remain faithful to the Franciscan traditions of itineracy, preaching and poverty. I hope to maintain my own movement proclaiming the goodness of God, detached from taking possession or ownership of any particular place, ministry or group of people.
Nothing is mine. All is in the hands of God. There is a great sense of liberation in knowing this. And freedom permits me to joyfully express gratitude:
I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception,to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11
I am not sure if I’ll ever return to teaching in a high school classroom or how exactly I will be of service to God and God’s people in the long-range future. I leave, though, with faith that the future is in God’s hands.
No matter how we are nudged and encouraged, I believe that God can shine goodness into any situation and the challenge of letting go.
In the midst of a war, I found my home in the Catholic church.
I was a college student, majoring in history. Studying history meant, among other things, studying war and the destruction and injustices that wars had repeatedly caused. The more I studied this side of history, the more passionate I became about social movements and peaceful alternatives. The truth of history convinced me that war, militarism and violence were all immoral.
Here are some of the things we have been doing to prepare for his visit:
We have been praying with this prayer from the World Meeting of Families. The World Meeting of Families began today in Philadelphia and Pope Francis will be joining the conference at the end, this weekend.
We are celebrating what I call “Pope Francis Fridays.” On Fridays we pause and do something special related to Pope Francis such as contemplate one of his statements or actions, or watch news stories related to him. For example, last week I asked my students to contemplate Pope Francis’ quote that “We all have the duty to do good,” and then journal about what good they had done that day.
We have been praying for him, for his travels, safety and health. We have especially been praying that we really take to heart the messages he has for us. We also have been praying for all the people who are doing the work of hosting and coordinating all the details of his visit.
I have a calendar in my classroom that is clearly labeled with the time when Pope Francis will be in the USA and we have been counting down the days until his arrival.
We have discussed what we know and appreciate about Pope Francis. For one of the Pope Francis Fridays we watched the coverage on his Virtual Audience to the USA and I heard the students comment about how much he inspires them.
It is an exciting time to be a Catholic in the United States of America. It is also an exciting time to be a religious sister and have a Pope that is a Jesuit and is informed by the beauty and challenges of community life. I really appreciated his recent comments to the crowd of priests, religious and seminarians. During this Year of Consecrated Life, and just a few months past when I made my final vows as a Franciscan Sister, Pope Francis’ reflections on living this unique vocation are very meaningful to me.
I know many people who going to the Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia to greet Pope Francis and participate in the gatherings. Apparently all the novices in the country were invited to the Mass of Canonization of Juniper Serra tomorrow (a fact that made me wish I would have delayed my vocation and were now a novice!). Fortunately, the blessing of modern technology helps me follow my friends who are attending online and participate from afar.
There is a lot of buzz and anticipation about what Pope Francis will say or do when he is in the USA. He is not a predictable pope. He proclaims the Gospel and acknowledges how challenging and messy it is to build the reign of God.
No matter what message of Truth Pope Francis may proclaim and inspire us with by his witness, may each of us follow his example. May we boldly love our neighbors and courageously enter into the broken and hurting parts of creation as we walk closely with Jesus. May we be real instruments of peace, just like Pope Francis! Amen!
Like many students and teachers around the country, I recently started a new school year. As this new year began to feel imminent, I looked back on my experience of teaching, so far.
I hesitate to admit that I haven’t always loved teaching. Sure, when I started this important ministry eight years ago, I loved it. I was full of passion and energy and idealism. I was going to change the world, one willing student at a time.
Somewhere along the way, however, I felt my passion for the ministry wane. I fell into a bit of a rut and lost interest in striving for meaningful growth, for myself or my students. I recycled lesson plans and techniques, lacking the energy and motivation to try to find better practices in order to meet the students’ needs. I was questioning whether or not to leave the classroom and…
Recently, I asked my students what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Kingdom of God.” This (low-quality) photo summarizes the lively classroom discussion that occurred that day.
As I told my students, I intentionally recorded all their comments on the board in a very messy fashion because I want them to see that the Kingdom of God is not orderly and predictable. In fact, living in the Kingdom of God that Jesus established means that we are living in the midst of beautiful chaos.
Through the incarnation Christ empowered us build the Kingdom of God. And, if we’re doing the work of building the Kingdom of God, we’re people who are moving into the chaos, out of our comfort zones, and toward the margins of society.
The chaos, the messiness of building the Kingdom of God is the stuff of beautiful chaos. It is also the stuff of personal and social conversion. During this Lenten season, our actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving challenge us to confront the uncomfortable corners in ourselves that are in need of God’s loving attention. As we let go of attachments and rearrange a bit of our living, an ugly seeming image of ourselves can emerge. We look at ourselves and see an inner chaos; we feel disturbed by truth. We need to grow, to be different, to convert more fully into who God made us to be.
I recently heard another Sister speak about how the chaos of a crisis gives us a chance to make a choice, frequently providing just the impetus we need to change. She connected these vital moments that invite our personal growth to the designs in God’s creation. When we study nature, she mentioned, we can recognize that the next evolutionary stage erupts when there is crisis and a need for change to occur.
I feel as if I am on this edge. The chaos of my weakness swirls about me, challenging me to make choices. I started Lent two weeks ago with a bit of my typical overambitious and idealistic intentions. And then I quickly started failing. Days would get busy and I would forget that about the extra tasks I wanted to do, like writing a card to someone I love each day. Now I am challenged to ask myself difficult questions, like why am unrealistic with myself? And, am I making enough time for others? I am challenged to move to more self-awareness and allowed to make another choice.
Each of us dance with questions and disturbances in the chaos of God’s Kingdom. We are allowed to make choices that allow for greater personal growth. We are invited to encounter the chaos that is the lives of others.
Then together–as a community–we change the structures, systems and inner oppression that don’t allow God’s Kingdom to fully come into the here and now. We forgive. We heal. We teach. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We love God with all that we are. Then, the peace, justice and love that is the Kingdom of God can be known in this time now.
As part of a larger discussion in my classroom yesterday, I asked my students how they define justice. Then, I asked them how they could better demonstrate justice.
The results were fascinating to me. Some students very quickly said justice means “fairness.” More students, however, said things like “being nice,” “treating people equally,” and “enforcing the laws.”
The context of the conversation was an examination of the following passage of scripture, a passage that shows the real meaning of justice. We are to change our hearts and ways to imitate God who is compassionate and fair: God who doesn’t necessarily treat everyone equally–but fairly–by giving special attention to those who are most vulnerable in society.
Now, therefore, Israel, what does the LORD, your God, ask of you but to fear the LORD, your God, to follow in all his ways, to love and serve the LORD, your God, with your whole heart and with your whole being,
To keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD that I am commanding you todayfor your own well-being?
Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it.
Yet only on your ancestors did the LORD set his heart to love them. He chose you, their descendants, from all the peoples, as it is today.
Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your hearts, and be stiff-necked no longer.
For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the greatGod, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes,
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing.
So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.
The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and him shall you serve; to him hold fast and by his name shall you swear.
The way we are called to love and serve God is by loving and serving the most vulnerable in our society. For my students and me, that is people who are different than us.
My students are studying the Old Testament and they are 9th graders. Most of them are white and privileged, and enjoy lives of safety and comfort.
Justice may have been difficult for many of my students to define because they don’t have to think about it very often. Most of them are able to go through their days without having to worry about whether they will be stopped by the police when they walk down the sidewalk. They do not worry about being wrongly harassed by police. They don’t have to fear coming home to find that their parents have been deported.
Like my students, I also enjoy being able to trust that the police will protect me and keep me and my dearest loved ones safe. I don’t fear racial discrimination, brutality, or false accusations for crimes.
It’s Thanksgiving week, and we have much to be grateful for. We also have a lot to do.
It is a time of tension in this nation. The protests and violence concerning the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the debate about immigration reform show that a lot of intense emotion is stirring all over the land. (By the way, I am a supporter of President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration reform, along with the Catholic Bishops).
During this time of chaos and conflict, what type of justice do we need to demonstrate?
The Scripture and our tradition make it clear. As people of faith, we are called to protect the most vulnerable. We must enter into intense social analysis in order to see what’s really going on in the systemic problems that cry out for the need for changes: we need immigration reform and less militarization in our police forces. We need more compassion.
We must rally non-violently. We must hold prayer vigils. We must offer loving presence to the hurting, the suffering, the vulnerable and oppressed. We must listen to their voices and not be quick to judge.
We must engage in simple acts of generosity and kindness, like God, and lovingly give the vulnerable food and clothing.
This is the real spirit of Thanksgiving: attitudes of gratitude that become actions for justice and kindness, recognizing we are blessed and making social changes so more people can experience the blessings. The type of Thanksgiving that our nation needs now is a celebration of generosity and compassion that honors the real meaning of justice.
Advent is a time of darkness. Sometimes it is obvious to us that there’s a such thing as holy darkness. And, sometimes the darkness is so cold and heavy that it seems to swallow our hope.
During Advent we are called to open up our lives to the hope that our heartaches make us hungry for. No matter how overwhelmed or ugly things may seem, we try to resituate our habits and hearts and create time and spaces so Love may arrive and change us.
When the darkness that corrupts our anticipation is because of ugly injustice, we can become tempted to turn away from Truth. The Truth is that many powerful promises are packed into the waiting within Mary’s womb.
How do we not give into the temptations so that we remain faithful to our trust in Love? The nativity story teaches us that we can only do this through community. Together we know that even when life flings the worst at us we need to allow openings as wide as canyons for Christ’s coming. No chaos ought to cause us to close our minds or hearts to the changes that come from Christ’s presence. Really wide openings of anticipation and healing hope emerge when we collect as communities and pray, cry, vigil, and serve together.
Only when we’re bonded together can Christ’s peace crack through the din of despair. That’s why good Advent activity happens in community.
Mensa’s death on Monday was another moment of senseless street violence. No one should ever be killed by another person, but when the victim is a young man full of great energy it’s especially awful. I knew Mensa from when I served at the now-closed St. Gregory the Great High School in 2008-2009. Then, he was an ordinary teenage boy who was very kind, smiley, helpful and humble– certainly someone who could have helped create more peace on the streets.
Before my former colleagues reached me with the news about Mensa, another sister and I had spent some of Monday night hanging up Christmas decorations. We giggled, climbed on furniture and hung lights and bows in open spaces around the house as cheery Christmas carols blared from the stereo. I had the special privilege of setting up the simple nativity scene on the commode in our dining room. The nativity scene is the centerpiece of all our decorations, so I tried to arrange it with great care.
In the creche, Mary, Joseph, an angel, and a couple of animals all are focusing their attention on an empty trough. When Baby Jesus shows up on Christmas Eve, he’ll get tucked right into the little bed that they’re focused on. Although Mary and Joseph are technically just figurines in the scene, their posture is a great reminder for me of how to wait in holy darkness.
They’re together. They’re quiet. They’re very still. They could get tired from being faithful to allowing an open space for God to be between them. Yet, they boldly believe that Love will arrive, so they continue to wait.
We all are waiting for Love to arrive and feed our hungry, hurting hearts. We are together, trying to be quiet and still, no matter the commotion. We may get tired and overwhelmed by the injustices and suffering, yet we’re trying to allow signs of hope to be seen in the darkness. We’ll light candles and vigil on street corners, we’ll fast outside government buildings and we’ll pray through the night. As we do, we’ll create openings for quiet so Christ can come tell us of light, peace, and joy.
The holy darkness gets cold, especially when someone like Mensa dies. Yet we’ll keep waiting in silent expectation because we still believe. Even in the darkness, healing happens and hope can arrive. Amen!